Commentary Magazine

Swinging With Benny Goodman

Sixty years ago this January, Benny Goodman and his band appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall—the first time a full evening of jazz had been presented at the most celebrated concert hall in America. It was the final step in the twenty-eight-year-old clarinetist’s whirlwind transformation from a respected but obscure studio musician to a national media figure, the first mass-culture hero to come from the world of jazz. Seventeen years later, he was the subject of an absurd but commercially successful movie, The Benny Goodman Story, and for the rest of his life his name was known and respected by people who knew little else about jazz.

Goodman was no less widely admired by his peers, both for his brilliant playing and for his courageous decision in 1936 to hire Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, the first black musicians to perform regularly in public with a white band. Nor were his achievements limited to jazz: just three months after the Carnegie Hall concert, he performed on the first classical recording to be made by a well-known jazz musician.1

To be sure, Goodman had—and has—his detractors. Dubbed the “King of Swing” by the popular press, he was denounced by some who felt his fame had been won at the expense of more original black musicians, and to this day he is treated as a nonperson by commentators seeking to rewrite the history of jazz along race-conscious lines. Most music critics found his classical playing to be lacking in personality. And after his death, musicians who had worked with him from the 30’s onward began to speak frankly about his personal peculiarities, telling stories—about his boorishness, stinginess, and insensitivity—that had long circulated within the jazz community but had never before seen print.

Yet none of this has significantly diminished the general esteem in which Goodman is still held. His recordings continue to sell, and he has been the subject of two full-scale biographies, one of which, Ross Firestone’s Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman (1993), ranks among the best books ever written about a jazz musician. There can be no doubt that he was a difficult man, but the fuller portrait of his youth that has emerged in recent years has done much to put his idiosyncrasies in perspective: few American artists started with so little, or accomplished so much.



Born in 1909, Benjamin David Goodman was the ninth of twelve children of a Jewish tailor who moved to the United States from Poland in 1894. David Goodman toiled in the sweatshops of Chicago, moving his growing family from one tenement to another as his income rose and fell. Dora, his Lithuanian-born wife, never learned to read or write English.

In later life, Benny Goodman would make every effort to put his early years behind him. Although he had grown up in a kosher home, he never practiced Judaism; he cultivated an upper-class accent that came and went according to his mood, purchased Impressionist paintings, and married a member of the Vanderbilt family. On the rare occasions when he did speak of his childhood, it was in harshly unsentimental terms:

I can remember when we lived in a basement without heat during the winter, and a couple of times when there wasn’t anything to eat. I don’t mean much to eat. I mean anything. This isn’t an experience you forget in a hurry. I haven’t ever forgotten it.

Yet it was in the Maxwell Street ghetto of Chicago that Goodman took his first steps on the road to fame. In 1919, he began studying clarinet at a synagogue that provided free music lessons to poor children. He subsequently joined the boys’ band at Hull House, the settlement house founded by Jane Ad-dams, and while there he also spent two years studying privately with Franz Schoepp, a rigid disciplinarian whose methods laid the groundwork for Goodman’s later virtuosity. But what made the real difference was the pupil’s fanatical determination to excel: he practiced for several hours each day, continuing to do so until the day he died.

By 1925, Goodman, known throughout Chicago as a clarinetist of exceptional ability, had joined the dance band of the drummer Ben Pollack, with which he made his first commercial recordings the following year. The Pollack band traveled to New York in 1928, and Goodman stayed there to work as a freelance musician, playing in radio orchestras and at hundreds of recording sessions. But he was too ambitious to remain a mere side-man, and too abrasive to kowtow to the powerful contractors who ran the freelance scene in New York; instead, he began to consider starting a band of his own, one that would not only appeal to dancers but also play swinging jazz.

In 1934, Goodman put together a fourteen-piece band that, after months of scuffling, was hired to play on a new NBC radio program called Let’s Dance. The deep pockets of the National Biscuit Company, the program’s sponsor, made it possible for him to buy arrangements from Fletcher Henderson, the distinguished black composer, who had recently broken up his own group. Henderson’s laconic, crisply swinging arrangements—among them “King Porter Stomp,” “Down South Camp Meeting,” and “Sometimes I’m Happy”—quickly became the band’s trademark. The success of Goodman’s appearances on Let’s Dance led the Victor company to sign him to a recording contract, and within a matter of months the potent combination of record sales, radio exposure, and nationwide touring had made him a star.



A compulsive perfectionist, Goodman was constantly hiring and firing musicians and rehearsing the new arrangements he commissioned from other gifted writers like Jimmy Mundy (“Swingtime in the Rockies”), Deane Kincaide (“Bugle Call Rag”), and Mary Lou Williams (“Roll ‘Em”). By 1937, he had forged an ensemble of extraordinary collective virtuosity, noted for the distinctive playing of the trumpeter Harry James (who also composed “Life Goes to a Party,” one of the band’s best instrumentals), the pianist Jess Stacy, the rhythm guitarist Allan Reuss, and the drummer Gene Krupa. But Goodman himself remained the band’s foremost soloist, and his lean, bright tone and aggressive yet controlled style, coupled with a technique unrivaled by any other contemporary reed player, soon made him the most imitated clarinetist in jazz.

His playing was heard to best advantage in the “band within the band” that he featured at every performance. The Benny Goodman Trio, which consisted of Goodman, Krupa, and the superlatively elegant pianist Teddy Wilson—they would later be joined by the extroverted vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to form the Goodman Quartet—was the first small group since the early days of jazz to win broad popularity in concert and on record. The trio and quartet were freer and less structured in their musical approach than the full band, and Goodman took full advantage of the opportunity they gave him to display his formidable skills as an improviser.

It was Goodman’s success that inspired dozens of other musicians to start similar groups of their own and thus create the nationwide craze for what came to be called “swing.” Though large dance bands, many of the best of them black, had been playing jazz for years, Goodman introduced the big-band sound to the white teenagers of the baby boom that followed World War I. Thanks mainly to their enthusiastic response, the 30’s are now known to historians of American popular music as “the swing era.”



The Goodman band was at the peak of its powers by the end of 1937, but there was unrest in the ranks. Goodman’s near-complete inability to relate to other musicians on a personal level, combined with his ruthless quest for musical perfection, had alienated many of his key players. (No doubt they would have wanted anyway to become leaders in their own right.) Shortly after the Carnegie Hall concert, Gene Krupa quit to start his own group; Harry James and Teddy Wilson soon followed.

Goodman spent much of the next two years trying vainly to revitalize the band, but it became increasingly clear that his interests had temporarily shifted elsewhere. As early as 1935 he had begun to play classical music, and two days after the Carnegie Hall concert he took part in a radio broadcast of the first movement of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet; later that year, he recorded the complete work for Victor with the Budapest String Quartet. There-after he performed classical music regularly, appearing with leading orchestras and commissioning numerous works for clarinet, including Béla Bartók’s Contrasts (1938), the concertos of Paul Hindemith (1947) and Aaron Copland (1947-48), and Francis Poulenc’s Clarinet Sonata (1962). Starting in 1949, he also began to study intensively with the great English clarinetist Reginald Kell, making major changes in his playing technique as a result.

Asked why he took up classical music when he did, Goodman replied simply that “I wanted something else to do to give myself a challenge.” Yet it is surprising that he should have felt the need for this challenge—no jazz musician of note had previously appeared publicly as a classical soloist—and his playing received mixed reviews, even from critics who liked jazz. They were right: Goodman played classical music like a self-made man whose table manners have been painstakingly learned from a book of etiquette. His 1938 recording of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet is fluent and correct but pallid in tone, and his phrasing in the slow movement is stiffly four-square.

Though Goodman eventually became more comfortable with the classical literature, he never learned to play it idiomatically, and his recorded performances are for the most part tasteful but dull (an exception is his second recording of Copland’s lovely Clarinet Concerto, whose cadenza and second movement have a jazzy flavor). His chief contribution to classical music was not as a performer but as an enlightened patron: the pieces he commissioned from Copland, Hindemith, and other 20th-century composers now form the cornerstone of the modern clarinet repertoire.



In any case, it was never Goodman’s intention to turn his back on jazz, and by 1939 he had assembled a band whose style would depart considerably from the straightforward swing that had made him rich and famous.

Fletcher Henderson continued to write for Goodman, but it was Eddie Sauter whose arrangements set the tone for the new band. In “Benny Rides Again,” “Superman,” and “Clarinet à la King,” the classically trained Sauter consciously sought to expand the harmonic and textural language of big-band jazz, and the pianist Mel Powell, a prodigy who later studied composition with Hindemith, echoed that approach in such memorable pieces of his own as “The Earl” and “Mission to Moscow.” Goodman also hired the electric guitarist Charlie Christian; Cootie Williams, formerly Duke Ellington’s much-admired solo trumpeter; and the peerless drummers Dave Tough and Sid Catlett, who drove the band with unprecedented finesse and subtlety.

The “Sauter band,” as it became known to musicians, was so fresh in its approach that Goodman seems to have found it both disconcerting and difficult to control, and when Sauter and Powell left in 1942, he reverted to a simpler style. But he was unable to recapture the spirit of the earlier band—his best post-Sauter playing was done with a 1945 sextet that featured the vibraharpist Red Norvo and specialized in such staples as “After You’ve Gone,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Liza”—and in 1946 he called it quits, briefly going into semi-retirement.

Part of Goodman’s problem was that jazz had lately undergone a drastic change: the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie had developed a rhythmically angular, harmonically complex style known as bebop. Though some swing players were able to make the transition—Charlie Christian’s highly individual style on the electric guitar in fact foreshadowed bebop—many others resisted the technically demanding new mode, finding it too difficult to grasp.

Goodman made a serious effort to master bebop, recording with such younger musicians as the trumpeter Fats Navarro and the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. In 1948, he led a strikingly original seven-piece group that featured Gray and the Swedish clarinetist Stan Hasselgard, and later that year he launched a bop-oriented big band. But he proved unable to assimilate bebop harmony—he had never been comfortable with advanced harmonic concepts, preferring the uncomplicatedly diatonic language of 20’s jazz—and his aging fans were in any case uninterested in further musical adventure.

Bowing to the inevitable, Goodman broke up his bebop band in 1949. He never again attempted to organize a full-time ensemble, spending the rest of his life intermittently leading semipermanent ensembles and pick-up groups. Though some of these later groups made fine music, and Goodman’s own playing remained technically secure, he had nothing to say musically that he had not already said many times over, and by the time of his death in 1986 he had long since ceased to be a major voice in jazz.



Asked in the 60’s why people continued to listen to his music, Goodman replied, “Sometimes I think it is nostalgia, and then I listen to the records and say, ‘No, it isn’t—absolutely not.’ ”

Nostalgia, of course, did play a part in it: he was one of the enduring symbols of the simpler, more innocent life of prewar America. But younger listeners also responded to Goodman’s recordings from the 30’s and 40’s not for their symbolic or sociological value but because of their lasting musical quality.

It is true that many earlier black bands—particularly those of Henderson, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, and Earl Hines—played with a rhythmic flexibility and lightness of touch that eluded Goodman’s first band. (To compare the Hines and Goodman recordings of Jimmy Mundy’s “Madhouse” is to receive an invaluable lesson in the difference between “black” and “white” ensemble styles.) Still, Goodman succeeded in putting his own personal stamp on the big-band idiom, as both black and white musicians attested. Ellington, for example, described the trumpeters Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Chris Griffin, who played together in Goodman’s band in 1937, as “the greatest trumpet section that ever was.”

The praise was deserved. The combination of precision and fire that can be heard on the best studio recordings of Goodman’s 30’s band—and even more so on the incandescent live performances originally broadcast on network radio and now available on CD—is both individual and irresistible. And the recordings made by the 40’s band, though never as popular as those of the earlier group, are fully as remarkable.

As for Goodman’s own playing, it is undeniable that he was not a stylistic innovator (though he learned much from the ones he hired, especially Charlie Christian), and so cannot be directly compared with such groundbreaking figures as Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. But no jazz clarinet player, before or since, has explored the expressive potential of his instrument more completely, and none has been more influential. No amount of carping, or of political posturing, can obscure the fact that Benny Goodman, whether or not he truly deserved to be called the King of Swing, was beyond question the greatest clarinetist in the history of jazz.



Benny Goodman on CD A Select Discography

Most of Benny Goodman’s commercial recordings have been transferred to CD. The following is a representative cross-section of his best work:

1926-34: A Jazz Holiday (ASV Living Era CD AJA 5263) contains 24 early recordings featuring Goodman both as leader of his own studio groups and as a sideman with the bands of Rube Bloom, Ted Lewis, Irving Mills, Red Nichols, Ben Pollack and Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang.

1935-38: Most of the key studio recordings of Goodman’s first big band, including “King Porter Stomp,” “Down South Camp Meeting,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” “Swingtime in the Rockies,” and “Madhouse,” are available in excellent transfers by John R. T. Davies on Benny Goodman Plays Fletcher Henderson (Hep CD 1038) and Benny Goodman Plays Jimmy Mundy (Hep CD 1039). The complete studio recordings of the Goodman trio and quartet are on After You’ve Gone (Bluebird 5631-2-RB) and Avalon (Bluebird 2273-2-RB).

On the Air (1937-1938) (Columbia/Legacy C2K 48836) is a two-CD set of radio broadcasts in which the Goodman band can be heard in vibrant performances of such signature pieces as “Bugle Call Rag,” “Life Goes to a Party,” and “Roll ‘Em.” Also available is a live recording of the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, but the sound is muffled and the performances are generally less compelling than those included in On the Air (Columbia Legacy C2K 10244).

Goodman’s 1938 recording with the Budapest Quartet of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581, has been reissued several times on CD, most recently as part of The Budapest String Quartet: The Complete Victor Recordings (Biddulph LAB 140).

1939-46: Goodman’s second band, which featured the arrangements of Eddie Sauter and Mel Powell, is sketchily represented on CD. Benny Goodman Plays Eddie Sauter (Hep CD 1053) includes “Benny Rides Again,” “Superman,” and “Clarinet à la King”; the contents of this CD overlap with the unevenly interesting selection available on Clarinet à la King (Columbia/Legacy CK 40834) and All the Cats Join In (Columbia/Legacy CK 44158). Roll ‘Em: Benny Goodman and Sid Catlett Live in 1941 (Vintage Jazz Classics VJC-1032) contains radio broadcasts from the same period featuring the drummer Sid Catlett.

Goodman’s sextet and septet recordings with the guitarist Charlie Christian are collected on Charlie Christian: The Genius of the Electric Guitar (Columbia/Legacy CK 40846) and The Benny Goodman Sextet, 1939-1941, Featuring Charlie Christian (Columbia/Legacy CK 45144). The complete studio recordings of Goodman’s later sextet, featuring the vibraphonist Red Norvo, can be heard on Slipped Disc (Columbia/Legacy CK 44292).

The 1940 premiere recording of Bartók’s Contrasts, for which Goodman was joined by the violinist Joseph Szigeti and the composer at the piano, is available in several CD versions, including a two-disc set of chamber-music performances by Szigeti (Biddulph LAB 070-71).

1947-55: The Complete Capitol Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman, 1944-1955 (Mosaic MD4-148), a four-CD set available only by mail from Mosaic Records (203-327-7111), contains a wide-ranging selection of performances recorded after the war by Goodman and a diverse assortment of musicians, including “Stealin’ Apples” with the trumpeter Fats Navarro and the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. Radio broadcasts by Goodman’s bebop-influenced septet of 1948, which featured Gray and the clarinetist Stan Hasselgard, are on Stan Hasselgard and Benny Goodman: At Click 1948 (Dragon DRCD 183).

1956-86: Goodman’s later jazz recordings, including the many live performances from his private tape archive that have appeared on CD since his death, are for the most part derivative of his earlier work and of limited musical interest. An exception is Benny Goodman in Moscow, a two-LP set of his 1962 tour of the Soviet Union, originally released by RCA and yet to appear on CD. The best of his postwar classical recordings is the 1963 stereo remake of the Copland Clarinet Concerto, conducted by the composer (Columbia MK 42227).



1 Goodman’s recordings are discussed in the discography at the end of this article.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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